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The hydrologic benefits of wetland and prairie restoration in western Minnesota—Lessons learned at the Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge, 2002–15

August 22, 2019

Conversion of agricultural lands to wetlands and native prairie is widely viewed as beneficial because it can restore natural ecological and hydrologic functions. Some of these functions, such as reduced peak flows and improved water quality, are often attributed to restoration; however, such benefits have not been quantified at a small scale. To inform future restoration efforts, especially in northern prairie settings, the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Red Lake Watershed District, compared the hydrology of the Nation’s largest wetland and prairie restoration, Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge, before and after restoration.

Wetland and prairie restorations resulted in substantial changes in flows through the hydrologic cycle, in reduction of overland runoff and ditch flow during storms, and in improvements in water quality. Wetland and prairie restorations within the six basins characterized in this study resulted in a 14-percent decrease of cropland, a 6-percent increase of wetlands, and a 19-percent increase of native prairie between 2002 and 2015. During the same period, runoff rate decreased 33 percent (as a proportion of precipitation) and ditch flow rate decreased by 23 percent. Areal groundwater recharge rate increased from 30 to 35 percent (16 percent relative change in flow rate). Base flow as a proportion of total ditch flow increased from 25 to 35 percent (a 40-percent relative change). Peak ditch flow from storms decreased, ditch-flow recessions lengthened, and base flow from groundwater discharge increased, though only a small amount in some basins. These changes reduce the amount of ditch water leaving the study area, reducing flows that contribute to downstream flooding. Median surficial groundwater and ditch-water nitrate concentrations decreased by 79 and 53 percent, respectively. Median ditch-water suspended-sediment concentration decreased by 64 percent.

Neither the density of restorations nor the beneficial changes in hydrology were evenly distributed in the study area. The amount of hydrologic benefits within an individual ditch basin did not relate directly with the amount of restoration in that basin; however, the landscape characteristics that related most closely with hydrologic benefits were the area of a basin underlain by a surficial aquifer and the area of drained wetlands (indicating the potential for wetland restoration). In western Minnesota, the basins underlain by surficial aquifers that contain large areas of drained wetlands are the uplands of the Alexandria Moraine Complex and the beaches of glacial Lake Agassiz on the eastern side of the western one-third of Minnesota, north of Wilmar, Minnesota. These findings provide resource managers with information that can help focus restoration resources in areas where the greatest hydrologic benefits can be realized.

Publication Year 2019
Title The hydrologic benefits of wetland and prairie restoration in western Minnesota—Lessons learned at the Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge, 2002–15
DOI 10.3133/sir20195041
Authors Timothy K. Cowdery, Catherine A. Christenson, Jeffrey R. Ziegeweid
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2019-5041
Index ID sir20195041
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Upper Midwest Water Science Center